FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

The Last Tribute: Chapter Eighteen

Aha. She did leave the stream to go back to the camp. She reaches the point where she "peeled away" from going downstream to head for it. Then the stream turns left.

I'm still geographically challenged here, but I'll take it.

Um, okay. Haymitch has been meeting with the Gamemakers who are considering going along with the audience's wish for paired victors.

Chapter Eighteen
Chaff has a bottle of his homemade peach brandy at his table, and he drinks it slowly. He keeps himself calm while Thresh fights with another mutt, but he maintains an even keel. He doesn't start to get tipsy. The brandy has the high and sweet aroma of fruit that's gone over, and as the day wears on and Katniss just wanders through the arena, looking dazed, that smell is drilling into my brain. I'd like to ask Chaff to move it away (or maybe just hand me the bottle and let me drain it), but I've been telling him for years that I only get drunk when I want to, and I don't need the stuff.

Since he really is like that -- he can take a swig now and then, occasionally have a blast on a night out, then get back to reality -- he believes it completely. I think he'd think a lot less of me if I let on that I sometimes drink for days on end and get the shakes after a week or so if I don't drink (today, Effie's given me a shot of straight vodka, and is sitting between me and Chaff's brandy with her eyes narrowed), so I don't bring it up. I will Effie not to bring it up, either.

Mandatory coverage begins with Katniss sitting by a smoky fire, clearly trying to draw out Cato and Clove, though they're far off and paying more attention to Thresh's fire at the moment. The beginning segment was clearly compiled during the day, as I'm stated to be in "negotiations" with the Gamemakers. Effie gives a wonderful interview about Katniss. She seems to think that Katniss's fury at Peeta after the interviews was just "surprise."

Lip readers are brought in to try and decipher Katniss and Peeta's conversations here in the Capitol, before their words were being recorded carefully. There's the conversation by the chariot, where they're clearly flirting, then the one on the roof, where no one can tell what they're arguing about, including me.

They also re-show some of the footage from the school, and cut in a picture of a District Twelve yearbook (an odd thing that the school library keeps copies of, but no one ever purchases, of course… but it's come in useful from time to time in the Games, which is probably why they publish it). In the picture, Peeta is in a wrestling match. They focus in on a shot of Katniss in the background, her books clasped against her chest, watching the match with solemn eyes.

I think of her angrily insisting that Peeta talk about his strength and skill.

I can't shake the feeling that she isn't watching casually. It doesn't matter, I guess -- real or fake, the audience buys it. As far as I can tell, the Gamemakers buy it. Maybe I'm just buying it, too.

They cut to on-the-street interviews in the Capitol.

"I love them!" a teenage girl squeals. I think she's the president of Finnick's fan club. He's been working the Fannicks pretty hard over the past few days. "I think they're so beautiful!"

Valerian Vale, out at a party, slips into his soap opera persona and, weepy-eyed, says, "It's a story for the ages, isn't it? His love for her, and the way she's learning to love after all the tragedies in her life?"

An older woman who's sponsored us in the past -- and may well be in the huge list this year; I'm embarrassed to realize that I'm not sure -- expresses the belief that as a young woman, she certainly would have thought Peeta to be "hot stuff, no pun intended."

An old man who I know plays chess with Chaff in the park reminisces about courting his wife, "back when we still knew how to do the thing properly, like that young fellow does."

An accountant who Effie used to date -- she must have screwed up her courage to call him -- says that it all "adds up."

All of them are almost certainly acting on our behest in one way or another, or on some level being consciously manipulative, but on some other level, they seem absolutely sincere. It's the last interview that really drives it home to me: I may be playing an angle, but the real idea is spreading through the Capitol like wildfire. The cameras are set up in the play area near City Center, and a little girl of about eight years old, her hair in a clumsy braid and a yellow paper mockingjay taped to her shirt, says, "I want them to live happily ever and ever and ever after!"

They cut back to Claudius, who's wearing a self-satisfied, irritating little smile. "We may have a little surprise coming, friends," he says. "We'll have to wait and see."

Coverage moves to District Two, where the story I helped Seneca Crane cook up gets off to an awkward start. There are no pictures of Cato and Clove watching each other, or playing together, or even in the same room, though the parents insist stiffly that they are old friends and Cato always let Clove on his team. They don't try to ad lib any specific stories. The families are having a picnic together, with food I recognize as coming from a Games staff catering truck. Clove's father looks ready to kill the next person to ask him a question. Cato's father is more personable, sharing tales of his son's great athletic prowess.

Across the room, Brutus is glaring at the screen. Enobaria notices me looking and rolls her eyes extravagantly.

Since none of the tributes are doing anything interesting as the sun begins to set in the arena (Katniss has climbed a tree to sleep in, even though it's only early in the evening), they return to Claudius's studio, where legal experts are laying broad hints that the surprise they have in mind may be skating up to the edge of the law.

"You think they're going to do it?" Chaff asks me.

I nod.

Claudius touches his earpiece, and says that he wants to make the announcement live, so the audience and the tributes will get it at the same time.

The screen splits into three panes, showing the studio, Katniss, and the District Two tributes.

Claudius announces that the Gamemakers will allow team winners.

Cato and Clove dance around their fire.

In her tree, Katniss's eyes go wide, and she yells Peeta's name.

This could have been a suicidal move. No doubt about it. But there's something in the way her voice sounds, in the way she grasps at her chest, as if she's trying to keep her heart from bursting out… no amount of playacting would ever be as convincing, and I doubt she thought about it for a second. If she had, she never would have done it.

There's no harm done, of course. Clove and Cato are far enough away not to hear it (and are, at any rate, preoccupied with their own celebration). Finch and Thresh are both shown, but neither seems to care.

Here, Finnick begins to clap. Johanna and Annie pick it up, and soon, there's a standing ovation from everyone except Brutus. Even Enobaria is hooting and hollering. Claudius, who had clearly been hoping for an immediate fight and a reckless run through the woods at night, pretends to be enthusiastic about Katniss's smart decision to wait for morning… not that anyone is paying attention.

We're not the only ones celebrating. Cameras in Two and Twelve are set up in the public squares. There's stunned silence, then, quite suddenly, cheers break out. People on Capitol streets are shown clapping and hugging each other.

The evening turns into a party. Effie and I flip a coin to decide who will go out into the Capitol to turn the enthusiasm into sponsorships, and who will remain at the phone to take them. I suspect Effie cheats, because she wants me to get out. She doesn't even show me the coin when she says she'll be staying here. Chaff opts to go with me, leaving Seeder at the table, and we go to a crowded restaurant. He works on sponsors for Thresh, but of course, Thresh is no longer a potential beneficiary of the new rule, so it's hard going. All I have to do is smile at people and they throw money at me. At some point, a camera crew finds us and asks us about the ruling. I tell them it's about time, and Chaff grumbles that it's a little late.

On the television screens around us, the District parties look almost as wild as Capitol parties. People are dancing in circles. In Twelve, there's a woman who is clearly from the Capitol film crew dancing barefoot on the cobblestones. Most bizarrely, I see Ruth Everdeen grab Mir Mellark and spin her around in a joyous circle. It's an entirely genuine moment, but a completely unreal one to anyone who knows them. Aside from the fact that they hate each other, I don't think I've ever seen Mir taken by surprise or Ruth completely ebullient. Primrose runs to Danny and throws herself into his arms. She grabs his hands and pulls him out into the square to dance.

More precisely, she pulls him toward the cameras. She's working them as well as Katniss does.

"Thank you!" she calls out. "Thank you! Thank you!"

For a brief instant, I feel like she's thanking me. I'm absurdly touched by it before I realize that she's probably thanking the Gamemakers.

The party goes on. Alcohol is flowing freely, and after a while, I have to leave the restaurant, before I give in to the general mood and wreck everything. Chaff and I walk back toward the Viewing Center.

The streets aren't a whole lot better. A deliriously happy woman, who is clearly enhancing her happiness with some kind of pharmaceutical aid, runs toward me with her fists full of sparklers. She shouts "Happily ever after!" then heads off into the darkness, whooping.

A vendor has dropped his prices, and even offers me a free sparkler. I take it and hold it up. It's a poor imitation of the kids in the chariot, but people come flocking over to me anyway. Pads of paper and items of clothing are held out for signing, so Chaff takes up the sparkler, and I lean in to take care of the fans.

"Now, the kids aren't out of the woods yet," I say. "Peeta's awfully sick. He's going to need medicine, and that means we still need your help. Can you help?"

The cheer that goes up seems to be an enthusiastic yes.

A young teenage girl comes up. She's holding something that she's printed out -- a picture Peeta drew that they showed on television. She hands it to me to sign.

"Oh, now, maybe you should wait for Peeta to come out and sign that for you," I suggest, giving her a grin.

To my surprise, she starts crying. "I can't…"

"You can't what, honey?"

"I don't have money. I can't help them. I don't have anything! I'm useless. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked you to sign anything…"

The girl looks down. I see a lot of other people in the crowd shuffling aimlessly. I'm used to dealing with the Capitol's rich, and even the poor are well-to-do by District Twelve standards, but there's more than money in this, no matter how much I need it.

Besides, I've been there. I know what it feels like to realize that no matter how much something matters to you, you're stuck with the resources you have, and they're never going to add up.

I take the paper and I sign the back of it in big letters. "Now, you listen to me. Everybody listen! I never had money when I was a kid. I was so broke I wore my daddy's old shoes to school, and I sent my brother to school in Momma's. But that didn't make me useless, and you're not useless, either. Do you hear me?"

"I guess."

"I do need money for their medicine. But money's not all there is. You believe in them, don't you?"

"I do," the girl says.

"Well, I do, too. And they need that as much as the other." I signal to Chaff and he hands me the sparkler. I hand it to her. "You take it out in the night. You be the girl on fire."

She takes it and stares at it in awe.

I turn to the vendor. "I'll take your whole stock," I tell him. "You just hand them out."

He holds out his thumbpad, and I put in my print.

In ten minutes, we have a small army of kids with sparklers, lighting the street up like it's the middle of the day. I see one boy pass his sparkler to a smaller child, who runs wildly into the shadows, lighting the way.

Chaff and I turn down another street and continue on our way.

Johanna and Annie come out of a bar (both of them a little drunk) and walk with us. Finnick's on one of his dates. We're stopped by people on the street demanding autographs, offering money, and, as often as not, just wanting to tell us how excited they are, and how they want everyone to come home now. Many of them have acquired sparklers.

"It should be a whole alliance!" a boy says in an excited way. "Then they could all make friends, and all of them could go home. It would be like you and your friend!" he tells Jo.

Jo, who simply does not discuss her alliance with River -- it wasn't even especially featured on the official version, so whoever this is must have been a fan in real time -- smiles tightly. I squeeze her shoulder.

Someone snaps a picture of this, and by morning, there's speculation on the Capitol gossip shows that I'm in love with Jo. It's been a while since they bothered with rumors about me, but now that my tributes are a hot commodity, I'm suddenly of interest again. There's an actual debate about my love life. They call me for a comment (audio only). I raise an eyebrow at Effie and she just shrugs, so I go back to my usual joke: "I'm saving myself for Effie Trinket."

Oddly, though Effie is the only person I've considered a relationship with for years -- she's the only person who's been consistently around for years -- she's the one they completely ignore in favor of more exotic fare. Today's candidates, other than Jo, are three of my sponsors from the Daughters (including Aquila; I hope she's not angry), Cinna's partner Portia, Cinna himself, Seeder, and Finnick. Finnick finds it hilarious. Cinna, who drops by for breakfast (and to see how he can use his new popularity to help the cause), complains about me not buying him flowers anymore. Portia is less amused. Jo makes gagging sounds and says it would be like fooling around with her father.

I make a face at her. "Hey!"

"Tell me it's not possible," she says. "I've heard about your Victory Tour. You sure you didn't swing through District Seven, say, twenty-one years ago? I mean, you have to admit -- our cheerful dispositions are awfully similar."

"Yeah, Jo. I was swinging over to the other side of the country to have an affair with a married lumberjack."

"Fine, spoil my fun. I like to pretend. I think you just found a new pretend daughter, and you like her better." She jerks her chin at the screen, where Katniss is starting to stir in the tree. "I have to go pout now."

I don't actually feel old enough to be the father of a twenty-year-old, but I guess the math works out, sort of, and the exaggerated sulk she throws herself into -- flopping dramatically down onto a sofa and covering her ears -- makes everyone laugh.

I let it go.

Katniss is careful even in the daylight, much to the annoyance of Claudius's daytime replacement. His last name is Bidwell -- the same as a boy I killed twenty-four years ago, which I register but don't bother trying to figure out -- and he obviously wants to be Claudius when he grows up. He's very impatient at not having an immediate battle to report on.

Katniss eats a large breakfast and arranges her supplies. I expect she's considering the problem of Peeta's whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Clove and Cato decide to celebrate their new chance to live by trying to hunt down the single tributes (Cato's notion is that they'll battle Peeta and Katniss in a final, glorious melee of some kind). They're down in Thresh's territory, looking for a fight. Thresh is keeping to himself, and Finch, who has been stealing his food -- more or less with his permission -- hides in a niche in the rock, covering herself with shrubbery.

There's coverage from Twelve and Two. They've allowed the school kids to go to the gym and watch the events unfold live. In Two, they're used to it at this stage of the Games. I think their schools might even be closed from the final six on, so everyone can luxuriate in the spectacle (except the parents of the dead tribute, of course). In Twelve, they're piled onto the bleachers. I can see that there are now hand-drawn cartoons on a lot of the shirts. These are mostly mockingjays and pictures of Katniss and Peeta fighting back to back. One girl says that hers was drawn by Peeta's brother. The reporters marvel that District Twelve is so moved by all of it. ("The normally taciturn district," one says solemnly from the slag heap, "is coming to life in the excitement of the Games.")

The normally taciturn but now enlivened Katniss is also shown again, screaming Peeta's name last night. They even re-run the interviews and have body language experts on to talk about what she might really be feeling. There's a good deal of giggling in the gym, though it doesn't make the central broadcast. I can't blame them. They probably have a better read on Katniss than the experts do.

Katniss finally strikes out with a deliberate stride -- she is beyond good with the cameras; she has an instinctive sense of where they are and exactly how they'll show her every move -- and heads for the creek.

She looks at the water, then decides to go downstream. She takes off her shoes and walks in the water, probably serving the dual purpose of hiding her tracks and keeping her cool. The temperature readings from the arena don't look very comfortable.

She follows along the stream as a bend takes her closer to Peeta, and closer to the edge of the arena, though she doesn't know either of those things. The smart move for Cato and Clove would have been to build a camp up here, above the narrow, rocky ground. Anyone not using the lake -- which they know Katniss and Peeta aren't -- would be likely to fetch up in this little ravine.

Luckily, Cato and Clove aren't master strategists, and Katniss is entirely unmolested. In fact, all of the other tributes are on the far side of the arena. She could set up housekeeping here.

She seems to recognize that it's not the safest terrain, and is spooked by it, but before her instincts take over, she notices a long-dried smear of blood on the rocks. She runs to it and touches it, almost reverently, then continues downstream.

I hadn't noticed much of the blood that Peeta left on his trail, and clearly, the Careers didn't notice it. I have a feeling that the Gamemakers didn't notice it, because their breathless narration seems a bit taken aback by the way Katniss is following the trail. The Peacekeepers have dogs who could follow a trail this old, but I've never seen a human do it.

She finally reaches the little bend in the river where Peeta is buried in the bank. There are fewer smears here, though she does find one. I don't know if she somehow senses him nearby, or hears his slight breath, or is maybe just desperate, but she whispers, "Peeta! Peeta!"

All around her, the mockingjays pick up the call, and the air is filled with a long, gasping sigh -- "ee-a, ee-a, ee-a."

She looks up in horror at the potential sign to her enemies, and takes a step back, her foot dropping into the pool Peeta has been reaching out to drink from.

He says, "You here to finish me off, sweetheart?"

She jumps, almost comically surprised. On the screen from the District Twelve gym, I see a cheer go up that must be deafening, but there's no sound on it here, and there's no way the Gamemakers will break away from this little scene to show it.

"Peeta?" Katniss whispers. "Where are you? Peeta?"

"Well, don't step on me."

She looks down.

Peeta opens his eyes.

It's a startling shot, those sky-blue eyes opening in the muck. He laughs at her gasp, and his teeth are as much of a shock. It's like the earth itself waking up and answering her.

Katniss makes him close his eyes and mouth so he disappears again, then shakes her head in wonder. "I guess all those hours decorating cakes paid off."

He smiles again. "Yes, frosting. The final defense of the dying."

It is a perfect line. Light, not at all self-pitying, but bringing back the gravity of the situation. She tries to flatly forbid his death, and tells him that they're working together now. He tries to warn her about his wound, but she's not really listening. He lightens things up again by begging for a kiss.

Then she pulls him out of the mud.

There's no more to joke about.

Even Brutus swears under his breath.

Peeta has been buried in the mud for days now, only moving his hand out to gather water. I don't think any of us had realized that he's completely unable to move. He screams as Katniss tries to roll him.

The trackers in his body start getting more readings as his blood begins to flow more freely. His nervous system is all right -- it's not a straight paralysis -- but the infection that's been festering in his wound has stiffened all of his muscles, and any motion is causing him extreme pain.

Katniss gives up on any idea of pulling him into the water. Instead, she cuts away his undershirt and starts to bathe him where he is. She pulls out his tracker jacker stings and applies Rue's paste to him, and uses some of her burn ointment on his chest. She even digs out some fever reduction pills from Marvel's supplies and force feeds them to him. She tries to give him food, but only manages to get him a few bites of dried apple.

The bath takes a very long while. Between the blood and the pus and the mud and greenery, and the fact that Katniss can't get him to the stream to submerge him, she ends up cleaning him with handfuls of water for hours. There will be plenty of good shots for the mandatory viewing cut later.

Meanwhile, I get serious about Peeta's medication. Every time I try to get an answer on the cost, they raise it, just above whatever I have.

By the time Katniss has worked her way to Peeta's leg and is trying to drain the pus, I'm starting to see the lay of the land.

They're going to keep the medicine away.

Not permanently. But they'll make all of the sponsors irrelevant.

I press my lips together tightly. I've seen this happen before, though my tributes have never been the target.

They'll find a way to get the medicine into the arena, and then they'll use it to cause a fight.

I stop asking for it.

In the arena, Katniss continues the unpleasant business of bringing Peeta back to life.
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